Willets backers want to sue city over plans

Attorney Michael Rikon (r.) speaks out against the city's plans to redevelop Willets Point at a protest held in the 62-acre area last month. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Connor Adams Sheets

The city’s $3 billion plan to use eminent domain to redevelop Willets Point is facing new legal challenges as a group of property owners opposed to the project step up their efforts to block it.

Willets Point United, a group of Iron Triangle property owners, filed a new motion Monday asking New York Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden to reopen a lawsuit accusing the city Economic Development Corp. of initiating the eminent domain process before taking the required steps to comply with environmental law.

The group also plans to submit a challenge in about two months alleging the city did not properly advertise or translate the eminent domain hearing the city held March 2.

EDC spokeswoman Julie Wood said the agency expects to weather the challenges.

“We feel confident that we are on strong legal footing and look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible so that this project, which will create thousands of jobs in Queens, can move forward without further delays,” Wood said via e-mail.

Both challenges are aimed at blocking the project from progressing as planned. Nine business owners in the 20-acre first phase of the project face the prospect of the city possibly seizing their land through the use of eminent domain.

The motion filed Monday accuses the city of going back on a promise it made in court to receive approval for plans to build ramps onto the Van Wyck Expressway before moving forward with the eminent domain process. It suggests that in light of the city’s alleged reversal on the ramps issue, the court should reconsider its dismissal of Willets Point United’s case against the project.

“In view of the newly discovered evidence that the city is changing its plans and is reneging on its promises to the court, the court should vacate its prior order dismissing the Article 78 petition and petitioners should be allowed to reargue the case through use of the new evidence,” the motion states.

EDC President Seth Pinsky wrote in a recent blog post that he believes the city is not yet required to address the ramps issue.

“Because our updated analysis shows that the size of the Phase I development does not create any new traffic impacts, we do not expect to build the ramps until the next phase of development,” he wrote. “However, we continue to work closely with regulatory agencies and remain confident that we will receive all necessary approvals for these planned ramps in the coming months.”

The challenge expected in two months will be predicated in large part on the city’s notification process about the March 2 eminent domain hearing, which did not follow eminent domain procedure law, according to John Houghton, a lawyer for the property owners.

Houghton said three of the key issues the challenge will address are the absence of a Spanish translator at the hearing, the lack of a Spanish translation of hearing notices and the fact that only Phase 1 businesses were officially notified about the hearing.

“They’re actively trying to limit the public from being able to speak at this hearing by not providing notice to all of the people in Willets Point, by not providing notice and translation services to all the Spanish-speaking individuals in Willets Point,” Houghton said. “How is this truly a public hearing?”

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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